More Zombie Ethics: George Lucas, Re-Animator

It seems that cinema innovator and mega-mogul George Lucas is using a large chunk of his “Star Wars” merchandising lucre to purchase the rights to screen images of dead movie stars. His plan is to give his tech-magicians at LucasArt the opportunity to perfect the process of re-animating and manipulating them to appear in new roles in new films. Imagine Humphrey Bogart in “Pirates of the Caribbean 5”! Imagine Marilyn Monroe joining the girls in “Sex and the City 2”!  Imagine Cary Grant in a buddy picture with Adam Sandler! Or Jar Jar Binks.

Undoubtedly there are many movie fans who would enjoy having digitally resurrected Hollywood legends appearing side-by-side current idols, and there is probably a lot of money to be made by giving them what they want. Turning deceased stars into computer-generated images and making them do and say anything the programmers choose, with the pace, volume and inflection the directors desire, would represent a significant technological advance. Another obvious benefit is that Lucas’s method is preferable to just digging up the carcasses of the acting greats, hanging them on wires, and using machinery to parade them through movie sets like marionettes.

But not much.

If we regard the screen images of our greatest performing artists to be just shadows, pixels and pulses that are merely tools for other artists to use as their creative urges dictate, then what Lucas proposes shouldn’t set off any ethics alarms at all. If, however, we believe those images are what virtually all the stars went to their graves thinking they were—the essence of their public identity; the embodiment of their work, their talent and the unique qualities that made them special; and their priceless legacy to cinematic history,—then we must conclude that Lucas’s plan is an ethical abomination.

To conclude otherwise would require a cultural consensus that we owe the dead nothing once they have left us, not respect, not dignity, not honor, not reverence, not fairness. It would mean that once an important, accomplished, acclaimed individual is no longer alive to defend his or her life’s work, image and reputation, warping and defacing them for public sport and private profit is acceptable…as long as money has changed hands first, of course.

There is currently no impediment to Lucas and others who want to this curse on defenseless film greats, unless the public makes it clear that it finds the concept offensive and wrong. The Golden Rule provides  guidance here: who among us would relish the thought of our image and name being used in public without our permission to do, say, and represent things we never would have agreed to do, say, or promote in life? Would any of us cherish the prospect of our CGI avatars playing roles in porno films, or hosting “Bridalplasty”, or perhaps playing one of the vicious clods in the Direct TV commercials?

The stakes are even higher for film stars who devoted their professional lives to embodying specific human values and virtues in American culture. Paul Newman, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and many other screen icons of the past carefully chose their roles to maintain the integrity of what each symbolized to the American public. Director Don Siegel related an argument with Wayne during the filming of his final film, “The Shootist.” The script called for Wayne’s character, as he was dying, to shoot his fleeing assassin in the back. Wayne refused, saying he would rather let the movie languish unfinished than violate the sacred values of the character he had created over a forty year career. Yet if Lucas has his way, we could soon see John Wayne playing a fearsome Mafia hit man, or Charlton Heston portraying an Islamic terrorist, roles that they would have reviled in life. Moreover, the posthumous roles could accumulate forever, overshadowing and overwhelming the performances of the real human beings. Future generations will not be able to distinguish between the talents of the real Marlon Brando, and the brilliant acting choices he made himself, and the performances of CGI Brando, crafted by an anonymous technician.

I was about to write that some stars are less vulnerable than others, noting that John Wayne’s image, for example, is scrupulously guarded by his family. Then I remembered that the guardians of the Duke’s legacy allowed him to be digitally inserted into a beer commercial a few years ago, exactly the kind of undignified use of his image that Wayne refused to allow when he was alive. Legally, families own the rights to such images, but ethically, they cannot be trusted with them. The longer a star is dead, the easier it will be to tempt his great great grand nephews into selling their famous relative’s digital carcass to a computer re-animator, who will turn Errol Flynn or James Stewart or Audrey Hepburn into a soulless cyber-zombie, doing their owner’s bidding, whether it would have humiliated the real actor or not.

It is a well established principle of both of human nature and technology that something that can be done will be done, and if it is profitable, will be done a lot. Only law and ethics can moderate this principle, and in the case of Lucas’s revolting plan to turn great, dead actors into his own hoard of profitable CGI zombies, ethics is inadequate. Current stars will probably be able to write restrictions on the uses of their images into their contracts and wills, now that they know the risk of having their re-animated selves programmed to diminish their reputations and destroy their dignity. Lucas’s current quarry, however, went to that big soundstage in the sky without suspecting that a post-mortem career loomed.

There needs to be a law to protect Humphrey, Kate, Cary, Jimmy, Errol, Ava, Rita, Judy, Marilyn, and the rest. There needs to be a law to protect their cultural legacy; there needs to be a law to protect us. This time, George Lucas has gone over to the Dark Side.

18 thoughts on “More Zombie Ethics: George Lucas, Re-Animator

  1. What about all of the posthumous depictions of historical figures in the literature, films and plays that we so enjoy? Is this use unethical?

    Mozart was depicted in a somewhat unflattering manner in Amadeus. Was that movie unethical, or was it okay because everyone knew it was Tom Hulse acting as Mozart, not some realistic CGI simulacrum of the composer himself? If Milos Foreman had used a realistic CGI image based on actual paintings of Mozart, would it then have been unethical?

    Oh, and don’t forget poor Richard III. He would probably be unhappy with the shabby manner in which he was depicted by Shakespeare.

    • I think you’re playing devil’s advocate, and I think the comparison is strained. Taking an actor’s actual screen personal and making him or her do what he or she otherwise wouldn’t is materially different, don’t you think, from historical fiction? But to answer your question: yes, I think sometimes portayals are unethical, and Richard III is a good example….especially when there is a suggestion that what is being shown is “true,” and a reputation is ruined by a lie.

      A better comparison, which I cut from my post, would be an author calling himself “Charles Dickens” and writing Dickensian novels. I think that would be unethical too.

      • You’ve got me on the devil’s advocate charge.

        I agree that the comparison is inexact, but I think that so long as everyone knows that a depiction of an actor is not really that actor, the use becomes a bit less unethical. The resulting product could become an “historical fiction” of sorts, exploring the issue of how an actor would appear and act today. If it were done well and tastefully, the artistic results could be worth it.

        Commercials, on the other hand, should probably be right out.

  2. You are spot on, as much as I hate to admit it. I know there are great purposes for the technology and fully acceptable purposes, but they are the exception, not the rule. Consider Heath Ledger’s unfinished “Imaginarium” in which other actors had to be brought in to finish the role that Heath had wanted to finish.

    But you are absolutely right. People have died with their legacy carefully crafted to last eternally. It’s not fair to denigrate their legacy because they weren’t advised of the option they couldn’t have possibly understood.

  3. This was already done in “Superman Returns”, where the image of Marlin Brando was used to essentially reprise his role as Jor-El in the previous Superman movies (the ones that starred Christopher Reeve).


    • But at least that was him playing a part that he previously played, not dancing on Cheerios. I’m not saying that makes it better, necessarily.

  4. Jack,

    Does it make me a terrible person that I don’t believe that we owe the dead anything? There may or may not be an afterlife but, whatever they case, the deceased are well beyond caring. The important thing is how we, as individuals, choose to remember them, but that’s for each person to decide for themselves. Humphrey Bogart never was, nor will he ever be in Pirates of the Caribbean 5, but if George Lucas develops the technological wherewithal to make it appear as he did, such is his right. Either way, my perception of Bogey will remain untarnished.

    This sacred notion that the dead have achieved some honor that must be observed led to the insanity of Pharaohs and Emperors having their riches buried with them (despite the living who might have been able to make better use of it) as well as having monuments constructed to ensure their “legacy.” It is also why, in modern times, we find it so horrific when graveyards are discovered beneath urban sprawl which then must be protected. Perhaps that makes me callous, but I just don’t see it ..


    • I’m surprised.

      I do believe we owe the dead respect and fairness, if they earned it. The talented did earn it. And I think degrading their memories and legacies does real harm to the culture, and reduces their power to teach, inspire, and and more.

      (I took out “Neik”…if you like that as a nickname, let me know!)

  5. I’m sure you’re not the only one who feels that way, Jack — in fact, if you’ll recall, the aesthetic sin of COLORIZING all but went down the drain due to public indifference as much as to outcry. It was meant to “modernize” black-and-white films, quickly recognized as the ruination rather than the saving of the great films whose soul consisted in composition and the subtle contrast of light and shadow. Ted Turner backed off on the idea of crayoning the whole film archives . It worked for The Three Stooges and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and reissues of old Bewitched episodes, though. And some of your dire predictions will no doubt come true. (Lucas has to make back at least some of his outlay, doesn’t he?)
    Then there’s 3-D , back again after half a century, continuing to pop up a bit smoother , plastic glasses and all, but only as gimmicky light entertainment.
    I’m predicting that re-animation will find its niche, low down: in the end, zombies walk alike and talk alike and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same. …. oh my gawd! did I connect Danny Kaye to Pete Seeger? Neat-oh. Maybe the idea will catch on and I’ll invent Post-It notes.
    Take a deep breath, Jack, and release it sloooowly. Think of all the Elvises in Las Vegas — if the REAL one came back performing, they’d all be out of business. Now isn’t that a plus?

    • Well, sure, if it’s obvious who is the real Olivier and who is cyber Larry. But think of V.V. Andrews, who has written more books dead than she did alive. I no longer remember when the real V.C, left off and the Zombie began. Don’t you think the 400 fake James Dean movies would obliteate public memory of the only three he actually made—IF zombie James looked and moved like the real thing?

      Of course, all of V.C.’s books stink, which is to say that zombie Sonny Tufts doesn’t worry me as much. He might even HELP real Sonny’s rep.

    • I think your point is a really good one, Penn. The market did decide on the matter of colorizing, and did so decisively. It is worth noting that that wasn’t good enough for some critics, however. There was a moral issue at stake there, by golly, so the matter quietly fading away due to lack of interest was unacceptable. The colorizing so-and-so’s needed to be STOPPED, and stopped firmly, so that any future transgressors would think twice before attempting colorizing in the future.
      I have a couple of DVD’s, of pretty recent purchase, that, as an extra feature, offer a colorized version of the movie: “Here’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in its original form but, if you’ve been a bad boy this Christmas and feel the need to punish yourself, just choose the colorized option.” I never do.

      • As will surprise no one, I think colorizing is unethical, because it destroys the artistic vision of the director and art director without their permission. It is like dubbing in George Clooney’s voice for Wallace Beery’s because he has more mellifluous tone. I agree with Spielberg, too, that “pan and scan” edits of films destroy the film’s integrity. And that cutting out or bleeping swears and vulgarity are in the same category as painting bikinis on Reubens’ nudes.

  6. Dear Jack:

    Sorry I missed this article until now, because it illustrates what’s been a fear of mine for quite some time now.

    First; it should be noted that, quietly and over time, Hollywood has been undergoing a technical revolution that stands to alter its methods far more than the conversion to sound did in 1929. Essentially, movies are still made the same way that they were in Georges Milliers’ time; director, producer, screenwriter, cameramen, a set and live actors. Plus… the necessary logistics and capital base. The innovations of sound, Cinemascope, Technicolor, 3D, etc., have expanded the cost, scope and logistics of moviemaking, but the basis of it remains the same as always.

    Slowly, however, a new factor has emerged. Computer graphics. Increasingly- and in scale as their quality and realism increases- they’ve come to play an important role. For example, the huge, distant battle scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” movies- something that would once have required an army of extras (such as in “The Ten Commandments”)- can now be done effectively and affordably with graphics. They still lack the in-depth realism, however, for close ups. But that has been changing as supercomputers increase in their “number-crunching” capabilities and the programming becomes more elaborate. Note that the best computer system today now tops at 3 1/2 TRILLION bps (terabytes). Nor is the end in sight. The time is fast approaching when computer graphics will be realistic enough to substitute for live actors in all phases. I give it another 20 years, tops.

    Not many (besides yourself and George Lucas, it appears) understand the impact that this “quiet revolution” stands to have on the entertainment industry and beyond. I’ve written before that all modern actors and the estates of deceased ones need to make certain of who owns the rights to the names, images and voices. What happens when, instead of the traditional film project, a guy with access to a mega-computer can make ANY movie, with ANY actors, from ANY time of their careers… for ANY purpose? And can do so without stirring from his own computer room?

    One obvious consequence would be the end of live acting. No more arrogant, overpaid A-listers! In fact, the young actors of today are likely the last of their breed. That’s minor, however. It also means, as you allude, that such a system would necessarily include a vast data base of every public figure (even non-actors!) who had ever been notable over the past century. Even Silent Era actors often have examples of their voices recorded in one form or another. Thus, any actor could be inserted into any format and, with his or her personality profile on tap via their cinematographies, programmed to perform in a situation as they likely would have in real life. Image, voice and personality- and indestinguishable from the living person.

    Herein lies the terrible danger. The standards of the Industry are a far cry from what they once were. Today, the bulk of moviemaking, even it it’s “legitimate” element, consists of R-rated plots and scenes that few of the actors from the pre-Valenti era would have countenanced. In fact, it would have been illegal. But now (or soon), it WILL become possible to include classic performers in situations of the uttermost depravity.

    There’s this, too. Children. As I’ve often mentioned, the inclusion of child actors in scenes of sexuality, gross violence and morbidity has increased steadily in scope since the mid-1970’s, culminating in at least one American film (“Hounddog”- 2006) that effectively broke the “child porn barrier”. A number of others have crowded up against the threshhold since. It’s still a barrier… but the door has been opened, as few legal authorities dare to challenge the Hollywood Interest.

    But now, there’s a big loophole that computer graphics can exploit. In a Supreme Court ruling on child pornography (1995, I think) it was ruled that ILLUSTRATIONS of children in pornographic settings do not rise to the level of actual children. Do you see what this portends? When computer graphics reach the point where human formats are just as real to the viewer as live actors, they will STILL be graphics nonetheless. Again; any actor at ANY point in his or her career will be accessible. They can even be “de-aged” if they had no history as child actors. But those who where- and are today- would have a special “appeal” to depraved audiences.

    Consider the consequences here. Many child actors from the classic period are alive today, ranging from Silent Era stars like Jackie Cooper and Donna Serra Carey (Baby Peggy) through to others like the Mouseketeers, Shirley Temple, Bonita Granville and a huge host of others… to include Paul Petersen! All would be vulnerable to pornification in their child aspects.

    And there’s this. Quite a few despicable modern films with children have nevertheless been restrained in aspects (or massively edited, such as “Hounddog” was) to avoid the outraged attention of a largely non-attentive moviegoing public. Soon, however, computer generated films will be made so easily and cheaply that they can be distributed to smaller and smaller markets. The theater system and, thereby, public notice, can be bypassed entirely. ANY perverted scenario involving the well known images of adult and child actors can be made. And, even if the actors own their images, the time will come when a “black market” will flourish in the darkest forms of pornography. When a demand exists, a market will rise and eventually be satisfied.

    The possibilities are endless and frightening. And, as so often, the law’s vision has not kept pace with technological advances. Nor, unfortunately, has the law’s moral basis. If even one instance of child porn- utilizing actual child actors- can be made and escape prosecution, what will happen when graphics come in? There will be no legal barrier at all. We may be on the verge of a new wave of public perversity such as Dr. Kinsey, Larry Flynt, Deborah Kampmeier or Jack Valenti never invisioned in their most feverish dreams. And, as always, children will be both the targets and the victims.

  7. I realize this is an archive, but I was drawn to the commentary. It seems there is a consensus that reanimating the dead either virtually or physically (the latter with wires and pulleys as was suggested) unless it is another “Weekend At Bernies” is at best, unappealing. Shout me down, but I did laugh at the first one. Awhile ago. Maybe since, I have grown up.
    This idea of reanimating has also taken on a new phase with body suits like those worn by actors in “Avatar.” Once this data is captured and stored, then the likenesses of anyone can be superimposed.
    In this same regard, I find the sampling of earlier music works equally grotesque, usually finding their way in rap and other current pop music.
    If the work cannot stand on it’s own creativity, it seems grafting upon it a known work – great, familiar or other will make it more credible or artistically relevant. My two cents.

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